Lee Coel

Former Punta Gorda Police Officer Lee Coel speaks with his attorney, Thomas Sclafani, prior to the hearing Friday.

Former Punta Gorda Police Officer Lee Coel may face a jury of Lee County residents in his manslaughter trial this October.

Coel is the police officer who shot retired librarian Mary Knowlton on Aug. 9, 2016, during a community demonstration by the police department for the Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce. His gun was loaded with what he thought and had been told by a supervisor were blanks, but were actually wadcutters — live ammunition used to punch holes in targets.

On Friday, his defense attorneys argued again to move the trial out of the 20th Judicial Circuit because the jury pool has been “contaminated” and is biased against Coel.

They called Dr. Tim Weninger, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, as an expert witness to discuss the effect negative social media may have on the case. Weninger noted the vast majority of articles about the incident also mentioned a previous event when Coel’s K-9 bit a citizen Coel arrested for a DUI on a bicycle. The K-9 chewed the suspect’s arm to the point of needing surgery.

Weninger stated one WINK story about the incident had been shared 123 times and had 210 comments but would have been potentially seen by all of WINK’s 218,000 followers. Only a small percentage of people who consume social media comment or share, and the angriest people typically don’t interact, he said, but the negative attitudes tend to spread.

“That negative emotion is contagious,” Weninger said.

He acknowledged media attention has waned in the three years since the event, but said the emotions connected to something people see on social media sticks with them. Even if they don’t remember the facts of the case, they’ll remember how they felt about it.

Once the case is brought up again, he said, “It’ll be just like it happened yesterday.”

Assistant State Attorney John Dommerich argued that nothing has changed since the defense last argued for a change in venue last year. Case law indicates the court should attempt to seat a jury in the county before moving it, he said.

Judge Margaret Steinbeck denied the motion to move the case out of the circuit but said she might move it to Lee County, where she believes there is less interest in a case about the Punta Gorda Police Department. In past cases she has presided over, she said about half the Lee County jury was made up of seasonal residents from Cape Coral.

However, she noted she will have to think and discuss the issue with the chief judge before making a decision.

A trial date was set for the trial period of Oct. 14-25. Coel’s next pretrial conference is scheduled for Sept. 6 at 1:30 p.m. at the Charlotte County Justice Center.


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